August 30, 2002 -- "Monsoon Wedding" is an experiment by director Mira Nair ("Mississippi Masala," "Salaam Bombay!") to make a big film on a tiny budget. If you want to know how she did that, watch the DVD. During the director's comments, Nair explains how she made such a good-looking film with very little money. This is a review of the DVD only. A review of the film itself can be seen by clicking on this link. This movie will be released on DVD on September 24, 2002
Nair's background in documentary film making came in handy as she filmed on location. Nothing was filmed in the studio, one of the ways costs were cut. Most of the scenes were filmed with hand-held cameras. Next-door-neighbors were pressed into service as actors (one of them has moved to Bombay and started a new career as an actress). Costumes were provided by Nair and her family. Paintings and other props were borrowed from friends. One of the big surprises, Nair said, was the astonishing performance of Vijay Raaz, who plays the part of P.K. Dubey, the wedding decorator. Raaz was a little-known actor before the film, but is now a major star. Nair liked his comic timing and his vulnerability so much, she wrote additional scenes for him. Raaz also improvised an entire scene on the spur of the moment. The scene was good enough to make the final cut. Nair liked Raaz's performance so much in another scene, she ran part of the shot backwards to keep Raaz on screen a little longer in the final cut.
One of the main characters in the film, Aditi Verma (it is her wedding that is the film's central plot element) is played by Vasundhara Das, a pop singer. It was only her second film role. Several roles were filled by non-actors because the actors who were supposed to play the parts did not show up for filming. One such actor plays the part of a married man having an affair with Aditi Verma. Nair's mother appears in the film, as does her nephew, who plays a rebellious son. Several other members of Nair's family are also in the film. The leading man in the film, Naseeruddin Shah, was a known star, however. He is one of the leading actors in India. Nair said Shah nailed his performance on the first take in several scenes. Nair said Shah has a gift for baring his emotions on screen. There was a second shoot after the end of principle photography because some of the film was damaged by x-rays at an airport. The insurance settlement helped pay for the costs of the second shoot.
Another way that costs were held down was to restrict the shooting schedule to 30 days. One of the ways this was accomplished was with extensive rehearsals prior to filming. The scenes in the film were rehearsed for two and a half weeks. Part of the Sangeet song and dance scene, which would take four to five days to film in a typical Indian production, was shot in four hours, Nair said. All singing was done live. Originally, all the shooting was to have been done in two houses in Delhi, but Nair decided she wanted more footage of Delhi, a place where she grew up. One of the scenes was shot at a place Nair had seen in a well-known photograph. She contacted the photographer to find where the photograph was taken, and was able to film in the same location. The scene shows the Delhi skyline with many kites over the city, part of an annual celebration that takes place in August.
Nair's commentary is incisive. She talks mainly about the film's budget constraints and the performances. Most directors talk a lot about effects and camera angles, but Nair talks little about such things. She seems to concentrate on sound design and music more than most directors. She also devotes considerable time to discussions about the differences between India and the West, how the West has changed India, and how she portrays the world of India in the film.
An indication of just how Indian, how foreign, this project was, can be illustrated by the fact that the entire cast spent over an hour every morning of the shoot doing yoga together. I bet that never happened during the making of any Western film. Nair said the group Yoga sessions helped bring the cast together and made them more like a family. Nair also likes to talk in the commentary about her transitions from loud scenes to quiet scenes, from talk to contemplation and from joy to sorrow. This discussion reminded me that these opposites can be viewed as the two faces of the same coin. Poet and philosopher Kahlil Gribran (1883-1931) put it this way in "The Prophet," when he wrote: "Your joy is your sorrow unmasked, and the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears." That is certainly true in the film, where the heights of joy are matched by equal depths of sorrow. The difference is, unlike some Western films like "Seven," Nair does not dwell morbidly on sorrow to the exclusion of joy.
For the final credits, Nair worked with a New York company that produced a background of colors which reflected those in the film, orange, midnight blue and saffron. Nair also explained the use of language in the film. She said the way the characters use language in the film is the way that real people in Delhi use language: Hindi and English for everyday conversation, and Punjabi when they are talking about deep, traditional, emotional or family subjects.
The dual-layer DVD has minimal features: A commentary track by the director, a "making of" featurette and the theatrical trailer. The film comes in a 1.85:1 widescreen format. The soundtrack comes in either Dolby (tm) 5.1 surround (English), or DTS 5.1 surround. Subtitle options are English, Spanish and French. I used the English subtitles and found the movie was much easier to follow than when I originally saw the film in the theater. Subtitles really help because of the thick accents and the mix of three languages used in the film. Sound and picture quality are good. The DVD rates a B.
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